Former dating columnist Julia Allison, an Internet microcelebrity now famous for not being particularly famous, has finally gone too far in her attempt to acquire Facebook fans. She may even have broken the law.
The ruckus has been stirred up by a sudden rise in the number of people who list themselves as fans of "Julia Allison" on Facebook. Allison has confessed to what happened: After Allison had a meeting with Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who is now actively promoting the site's celebrity pages, Facebook listed Allison's page on a list of suggested pages for new users.
That accounted for most of the jump. But Allison also admitted that she had Facebook "convert" 2,500 people who had requested her friendship on Facebook into fans. That's where she got herself in trouble.
Allison declared herself a "brilliant businesswoman" after her egoblogging startup, NonSociety, cleared five figures last year. She hopes to make more by accumulating a fan base and then shamelessly marketing products to them. In theory, she ought to be familiar with the strict laws around endorsements.
New York, California, and a number of other states have strict laws regulating what's called "commercial appropriation" — simply put, the right to control whether one's name and likeness is used in an advertisement to give the appearance of an endorsement.
Legal pundits have long been alarmed by the way Facebook skirts these rules. When users sign up to be fans of a product or celebrity on the site, the privacy argument goes, they didn't necessarily consent to broadcast that fact to all their friends in a way that's similar to an advertisement. Daniel Solove, a law professor has called this feature of Facebook a "privacy debacle" and argued that simply expressing appreciation for a product or person wasn't the same as signing up to appear in ads. But at least this involves users who willingly signed up to be fans. What of people who found themselves yoked into fandom without giving any kind of consent at all?
That's what happened to 2,500 users who aimed to be friends with Allison, but instead ended up in ads for her described as "fans." Facebook can't fall back on its old defense that they volunteered for the endorsement. They could well file a class-action lawsuit against Allison and Facebook. Nothing in Facebook's terms of service seems to cover such a conversion, which Allison now admits Facebook did as a favor for her.
There may be no separation in Allison's mind between friendship and a commercial relationship, no line between the self and the product. But there is a distinction in the law.
The back story on the friendship between Allison and Randi Zuckerberg: At the SXSW Interactive conference in 2007, Allison had posed next to Mark Zuckerberg at a party. Lest a photo of Allison and Mark start circulating, Randi dived into the shot, sticking out her tongue. When Allison and Randi met later, Randi apologized for judging Allison, and they became fast friends. Allison went to Randi's bachelorette party, they appeared in music videos together and threw a joint, bicoastal birthday party.
The lesson here: Sometimes first judgments are right. And sometimes guilt can be a dangerous thing.